Prepaid cell plans for Web, e-mail an option

Image: BlackBerry 8700g smartphone
If you want to try out a BlackBerry, but not commit to one with a contract or a provider, T-Mobile's FlexPay program offers one way of doing that. Other wireless carriers also have prepaid data plans for Web and e-mail access using other devices.T-Mobile

You don’t have to buy an iPhone or BlackBerry, along with a contract and monthly data plan, to get e-mail and Web surfing on a cell phone.

A growing number of prepaid cell phone plans offer Web and e-mail service as add-ons. But consumers need to pay attention to the fine print of such prepaid plans, which vary widely.

“The primary benefit of having a prepaid account with data is that users can change their carrier or plan anytime they want without incurring a penalty,” said Deepa Karthikeyan, wireless data analyst for CurrentAnalysis research firm.

Eddie Kirby, a Sacramento political consultant, switched to T-Mobile’s FlexPay prepaid plan for Web, e-mail and voice a little more than a year ago, and is quite happy with it.

T-Mobile is the one major wireless carrier that lets customers BYOB — bring your own BlackBerry — for use with the company’s prepaid service.

“For young people or people on a strict budget, I think it works great,” said Kirby, who uses a BlackBerry 8700g — "a hand-me-down from my boss" — with the prepaid service.

He says he recommends a prepaid data service “to people who want to bring their own phone, or (who) want to have the flexibility to jump to a new device easily. Two years is an awful long time to be tethered to a smartphone, given the rate of progression in smartphone technology.”

17 percent are prepaid subscribers
About 17 percent of the nation’s wireless subscribers are prepaid customers, said Joseph Farren, assistant vice president of CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry trade group.

Among the major prepaid carriers, T-Mobile and Virgin Mobile each have about 5 million users; Boost Mobile, owned by Sprint, has 4 million and Verizon Wireless has 3 million, according to CurrentAnalysis. AT&T, queried by, declined to state its number of prepaid users.

The growing appeal of the mobile Web is drawing more customers to smartphones, which generally include Internet access and e-mail on them.

But monthly contracts for the phones can be pricey. The iPhone, for example, offered exclusively in the United States by AT&T, costs a minimum of $69.99 a month, with $30 of that for Web and e-mail. Text messaging is extra.

Other companies, such as Sprint, are offering $99-a-month “all-you-can-eat” plans with no limits on data use, including text messaging.

Prepaid rates can be lower
Karthikeyan said prepaid rates for Web and e-mail are generally lower than those for two-year contracts with wireless carriers.

“The main downsides are that prepaid customers do not have a wide variety of handsets or plans to choose from,” including the iPhone or BlackBerrys, she said.

“Also, their networks are typically slower and not as widespread when compared to 3G (third-generation) networks” of the major carriers, and that can have a “significant impact on the Web-browsing experience.”

If you’re looking to go the prepaid smartphone route, “then T-Mobile FlexPay is the way to go, said Matthew Kunkle, wireless service pricing analyst for CurrentAnalysis.

Any BlackBerry or smartphone can be activated with FlexPay, and the same e-mail and Web plans are available for prepaid customers as for those who have contracts with the provider, he said.

Most carriers “pretty much offer Web plans for a certain amount of time,” such as for a 24-hour period, or by the megabyte.

If you’re not used to tracking kilobytes and megabytes of data, they can add up quickly.

Minding your megabytes
If the size of an “average” e-mail is between 5 and 10 kilobytes, and the “average” digital music file is 3 megabytes, according to Karthikeyan, you start to get a sense of how some of the prepaid data plans from major wireless carriers might or might not work for you. Here’s a snapshot offered by CurrentAnalysis:

  • AT&T: One cent per kilobyte; $4.99 a month for 1 megabyte; $9.99 a month for 5 megabytes; $14.99 for 10 megabytes.
  • Boost Mobile: 35 cents a day for unlimited Web usage; unlimited text and Web plan, $10 a month; "Unlimited by Boost" unlimited mobile Web usage included with a $70-a-month plan.
  • Verizon Wireless INpulse: 99 cents a day for unlimited use of Mobile Web 2.0 (through Verizon Wireless).
  • T-Mobile FlexPay: MobileWeb add-on for non-smartphones, is $5.99/month; Total Internet Web and e-mail add-on plan is $19.99 a month.

T-Mobile, the exclusive carrier of the Sidekick, has a pay-as-you-go plan for it of $19.99 a month for unlimited Web and e-mail.

If you have a BlackBerry, it’s the same cost. If you want to have unlimited Web use, as well as e-mail that will let you connect to a BlackBerry Enterprise Servers for corporate e-mail, the cost is $29.98 a month.

Sidekick prepaid users can also choose to have unlimited e-mail and Web browsing for a $1 a day if they don’t want to go with a monthly plan.

Virgin Mobile also offers monthly data plans that include $5 a month for 20 megabytes, as well as $20 a month for 50 megabytes. There’s also a pay-as-you-go plan for $1.50 a day for 1 megabyte of Web and e-mail use.

“For prepaid users who do not have the option to pick a data plan, like Verizon Wireless’ INpulse customers, spending 99 cents per day of use, or spending a few cents per kilobyte of data used can run up a steep bill on top of voice, depending on usage,” said Karthikeyan.

T-Mobile’s FlexPay option is probably one of the most popular for prepaid customers” because, in part, it offers BlackBerry and other smartphone options, which are “usually not even sold to prepaid users,” said Kunkle.

Unofficial double duty
Sometimes the prepaid option for data is so attractive price-wise, some customers have used their cell phones to get Internet access on their computers.

That may have been the case with AT&T’s $19.99-a-month unlimited MEdia Net plan for its prepaid GoPhone users. The company is discontinuing the pricing plan as of Nov. 12.

“While the feature will no longer be available for purchase, customers who have already signed up for unlimited data through the GoPhone ‘Pick Your Plan’ option will not lose it,” said Alexandra Trask, AT&T spokeswoman.

“The prepaid pay-per-use data rate remains unchanged at one cent per kilobyte,” she said. “GoPhone customers may also choose from two data packages at $4.99 for 1 MB and $9.99 for 5 MB.”

Among the major prepaid wireless carriers, MetroPCS, TracFone (which does not have data add-ons), Cricket, Virgin Mobile and T-Mobile were rated highest for customer satisfaction, according to a J.D. Power and Associates report earlier this year.

Doesn't want to be 'locked in'
Kirby of Sacramento figures he pays about $105 a month, “after taxes,” for his phone. He uses the BlackBerry Enterprise Service ($30 a month), has 1,000 text messages a month ($10) and 1,500 voice minutes ($60 a month).

“There is no difference in cost between my plan and a contract plan. I get to pick from all the same choices for the same prices as a contract customer,” he said.

The difference for him is that he “doesn’t want to be locked into a contract, and I don’t want overage charges. I was on a contract plan in 2006-2007, and I ran up a ton of overage charges — nearly $250 in a month.”

Wireless companies generally subsidize the cost of phones as an incentive for customers to sign a one- or two-year agreement, figuring they’ll make up the difference in the cost of the phone and more with the monthly service fees a customer pays.

To Kirby, “A free $300 phone is not worth being tied into two years with a particular company or plan that’s going to be taking thousands of dollars from you over the lifetime of the contract.”